As we age, exercise only becomes more important. In 2008, the World Health Organization found that nearly 3.2 million people across the world died due to inactivity. A Surgeon General’s report found that by the age of 75, 1 in 3 men and 1 in 2 women engage in little to no physical activity.
These are troubling statistics for seniors, who are also more likely to suffer injury during physical activity. However, research has begun to shed light on a type of exercise that is perfectly suited to men and women 65 and older.
“Some people hate to exercise because of the pain, but swimming is one of the few things where they don’t really have to worry about that,” said Dr. Hirofumi Tanaka, director of the College of Education’s Cardiovascular Aging Research Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin. “Because it’s not a weight-bearing activity, they don’t suffer the knee or hip or joint pain that most arthritis patients suffer.”
Tanaka has linked swimming to lower blood pressure, along with cardiovascular and muscle health. It also puts seniors at lower risk of orthopedic injury while engaged in exercise.
A Safer Exercise for Seniors
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 1 in 3 adults 65 and older will experience a fall every year. These falls can lead to severe injury in some cases. Even minor falls can limit mobility and make exercise uncomfortable or even dangerous. Swimming can offer a low-impact aerobic activity that will cause minimum strain. Some studies show this exercise can even lower your chances of a fall in the first place.
In an Australian study of 1,700 men age 70 and older, those who regularly swam were 33 percent less likely to suffer a fall during day-to-day activities. “Unlike [with] land-based sports, swimmers are required to create their own base of support and, at the same time, to produce a coordinated movement of both upper and lower extremities,” said Dafna Merom, an associate professor of physical activity and health at the University of Western Sydney in Australia and author of the study.
Tanaka’s research showed the beneficial effects of waterborne exercise on joints and muscles. These effects are due to its non-weight-bearing nature, making it perfect for those suffering from arthritis. Swimming also lessens the possibility of suffering heatstroke or heat exhaustion. That makes it a preferred form of exercise for people who would be more susceptible to the effects of heat. This population includes those younger than 5 or older than 65 and overweight people.
Types of Water-Based Exercise
Basic swimming can be just as effective as a water aerobics or resistance class. Proper form and technique are necessary for maximum endurance improvement from this type of exercise, though.
Exercise requires proper form so patients can increase flexibility and stamina. That especially applies to long-distance aerobic swimming. Accurate technique ensures muscle groups are engaged and heart rate stays at the proper level. An hour-long session of this kind of swimming 2 to 3 times a week significantly improved health in senior men with low activity levels, according to the study.
Additionally, activities such as aqua yoga or Pilates can improve one’s mood while offering some of the same health benefits as swimming.
Health Effects of Water-Based Exercise Sessions
Swimming also can alleviate back pain and improve posture. Consult your doctor before attempting any kind of strenuous activity if you have back pain, however.
“There’s no hard impact on your back like there is with running, and instead of being bent forward like you would be on a bike, your back tends to be arched slightly in the opposite direction,” David Tanner, a research associate at Indiana University and co-editor of an educational handbook on the science of swimming, told Time Health.
Swimming lets those with joint problems, such as osteoarthritis, gain the natural life-extending and metabolism-boosting benefits of exercise. It also eases pain and makes patients more mobile in general.
Tanaka notes that swimming stimulates appetite, making it less effective at promoting weight loss. Over time, however, the cardiovascular benefits of swimming should make weight loss easier. As you gain strength, you can include additional workouts, such as jogging or biking, in your regular exercise routine.
Effects of Swimming on Women
One study shows swimming also helps maintain bone density in postmenopausal women. In the study, 35 women took part in 3 1-hour sessions of water exercise a week for 7 months.
Water exercise decreases mental stress and increases estrogen levels. Estrogen can contribute to slowing the breakdown of bone tissue and hastening bone-building cells. Mushi Harush, an aquatic exercise trainer specialist with the Aquatic Exercise Association, said postmenopausal women and those suffering from osteoporosis can benefit from regular physical activity. She also reported swimming can help lessen the 1-2 percent of bone loss per year of menopausal women.
Swimming can be an effective and safe way for seniors to be active without putting undue strain on their bodies and joints. The mind-clearing nature of water-based exercises make them the ideal activity for a wide range of body types. Swimming also has benefits for the muscular and cardiovascular systems. Swimming can supplement land-based exercise in order to increase weight loss. It also helps ease the effects of degenerative bone and joint disorders. So next time you decide to make a health change for the better, consider adding swimming to your routine.